April 06, 2005

Open Letter to the Hon. Senator Bill Frist

Douglas MacLean: April 6, 2005

Dear Dr. Frist:
  I am very sad, and I hope you can help me become less sad.  I am enclosing a picture of myself with this letter, and although the picture was taken a few years ago you can clearly see that I am sad.  I'd like you to prescribe something - maybe an antidepressant - that would lift my mood and make me a more productive citizen.
  I'm writing to you as a last resort.  I've sent this letter and picture to many other physicians, but they all insist that I make an appointment to see them in person.  I suspect they are just after the fees they charge for office visits.  I'm pleased to know that you are not hampered by such "scruples."
  You set an inspiring example.  Most doctors I know find it a full-time occupation, but you are able to meet the demands of your job as Senate majority leader while still managing to practice your profession and make medical diagnoses to patients far removed from Washington or Tennessee. 
  I look forward to receiving my prescription in the mail.  Thank you for your attention.

April 07, 2005

Library Privileges

Douglas MacLean: April 7, 2005

  Since 9/11, most Americans have shown a willingness to sacrifice some of our liberties in exchange for greater security.  Thinking about this issue involves a difficult weighing of costs and benefits.
   This issue came up on Tuesday in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' defense of the USA Patriot Act before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  One issue concerns Mr. Gonzales' defense of the provision of the Act that gives the government authority to demand individual library records in its investigations.  He opposed a suggestion to amend the authority to require establishing "probable cause" before conducting such a search, although he said he would support a requirement that such searches must be considered relevant to a national security investigation.  Mr. Gonzales attempted to reassure critics by pointing out that the government to date has exercised restraint in using its authority.  He also assured the Committee, as defenders of the Patriot Act consistently have done, that "the department has no interest in rummaging through the library records or the medical records of Americans."
  This defense suggests that the way we should weigh the relevant costs and benefits goes something like this: consider the benefit of giving the government the authority freely to investigate suspected terrorists, and weigh that against the very low probability that the lives of most Americans will be affected in any way by the government's actions.
  This seems to me an incorrect way to account for the costs.  A certain right to privacy that we previously enjoyed has been sacrificed.  The issue is not (merely) the probability that any person will suffer as a result of searching for library records.  Rather, it is that most of us now enjoy the privacy of those records at the will of the government, not as a right.  The purpose of rights is not only to protect people from various harms, but also and primarily to recognize a certain status that people have to claim things as their due.  To receive a benefit because someone gives it to you is different from receiving the same benefit because it is your right.  This is the more significant cost of curtailing our rights.
  My point is not to claim that the government should not have the authority to demand the library records of any citizen, or that it should have a more limited authority.  It is that when we weigh the costs and benefits of sacrificing liberty for security, we should have a clear grasp of what the costs and benefits are.

April 21, 2005

Agent-Centered Action Theory

Douglas MacLean: April 21, 2005

Action theory is an area of philosophy that studies the nature of human action: how actions are individuated and related to act-types, how they relate to but differ from events or physical processes, how we distinguish a hand signal from an inadvertent movement, and other things like that.  A story in today's New York Times suggests that  Attorney General Alberto Gonzales may have something to contribute to the philosophical literature. 

The story is about two of President Bush's judicial nominees who figure to feature prominently in the impending Senate showdown on the attempt to prevent filibusters as a tool that the minority party can use to block appointments to which they are strongly opposed.  The nominees, both women, were blocked by filibusters in Mr. Bush's first term, and each has been renominated.

One of the nominees, Priscilla R. Owen, currently a supreme cout judge in Texas, is being opposed in part because of her dissents from rulings interpreting the Texas law on abortion.  In one dissent, Justice Owen opposed a ruling allowing a teenager to obtain an abortion without parental notification if she is mature enough to understand the consequences of her act.  Justice Owen objected that the court had not demonstrated that the girl knew that there were religious objections to abortion and that some women who have abortions experience remorse.

Mr. Gonzales, who at the time was a member of the Texas supreme court, wrote that the position of the dissenters was "an unconscionable act of judicial activism."  This remark, which is now being repeated by Democrats who oppose her nomination, is a bit embarrassing to the Bush administration.  Today's article reports that  Mr. Gonzales tried to explain what he meant at a recent Senate hearing:

"My comment about an act of judicial activism was not focused at Judge Owen," he said.  "It was actually focused at me."  His apparent explanation seemed to be that it would have been an act of judicial activism for him if he had done what Justice Owen and her two fellow dissenters had done.

I understand how the identity of an act can be agent-relative.  If I had issued an identical dissent to the Texas court's ruling, I couldn't have been accused of judicial activism for the simple reason that I am not a judge.  But Mr. Gonzales was a judge, so he must have some other criterion in mind for identifying and distinguishing act-types.  I hope he will elaborate further on this very interesting philosophical point.